Bubbles Beyond Champagne

Finding European sparkling wines, good for casual or special occasions.


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Photo by Michael Heintz

Champagne has all the natural advantages—climate, soil, tradition—that make it, at its best, ethereal and magical. But it's expensive. It's nearly impossible to find a Champagne that costs less than $20, and most cost more than $25. Top bottlings regularly sell for north of $100. These prohibitive prices sometimes scare us away from sparkling wines in general, though there are plenty of other European options. Why don't we ever remember them, and seek them out?

Spain's Cava, Prosecco in Italy and French vin mousseux all sell for under $10. Priced a step up, between $10 and $20, you can find crémants from the Loire, Burgundy and Alsace, in France. At $20 and more, top Cavas and the wines from Franciacorta or Oltrepo Pavese in Italy are all delicious, and still cheaper than excellent Champagnes.

That's not to say that the reasons to drink these other European sparkling wines revolve around price. The best of these bubblies are made with the same care that fine Champagne is made, using the same method of a second fermentation in the bottle to produce the bubbles. (However, the wines can no longer be described as "Champagne method," as they once were. That term was banned in Europe in the 1990s, at the behest of the Champagne producers.) Less expensive wines are made using what is called the tank method—getting the second fermentation in stainless steel tanks rather than bottles, or by the transfer method, fermenting the wine in one bottle and then transferring it to another for aging. Many of these sparklers are made using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as Champagne does, but others are comprised of local grapes, adapted to local conditions. Cooler climates—like the Loire in France, and Trentino in Italy—are the sources of lighter, fresher, fruitier wines. Spain's Penedès is hotter, but the growers get their sparkling wine grapes from the higher altitudes, leaving the lower slopes for grapes for still wines.

These Champagne alternatives are the perfect selections for summertime; this is the time of the year to remember that sparkling wines don't have to be relegated to special occasions. Most of the sparklers featured on these pages are casual quaffs, ideal for pool parties, the pre-dinner cocktail hour, or a lazy afternoon on the beach or the deck. They are wines for any occasion.

France
In France, "sparking wines other than Champagne" leads you straight to crémants, which are wines made in the Champenoise method that are often more moussey than sparkling. Alsace, the Loire, Burgundy and Limoux all make crémants. This is the new face of French sparkling wine, and much of it is very attractive.

The Loire is the main sparkling wine region outside Champagne. The Crémant de Loire appellation covers the whole river area, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the most important sparkling winegrapes. Made under tougher regulations than other Loire sparklers, these crémants are the most reliable and most interesting buys. Langlois-Château (owned by Champagne house Bollinger) and Domaine des Baumard are among the appellation's best producers. That said, there are also some delicious, apple- and cream-flavored Chenin Blanc-based sparkling wines from Saumur and Vouvray: Bouvet-Ladubay, Monmousseau and Château Moncontour are names to look for.

Alsace, too, uses its local grapes—particularly Pinot Blanc—for production of Crémant d'Alsace. Chardonnay is also allowed, and rosé crémants from the area are made from Pinot Noir. In Alsace, the best sparkling wines are made by those producers who also make quality still wines, René Muré and Lucien Albrecht among them.

In Burgundy, the sparkling wine scene is dominated, as you might predict, by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-based wines. And in fact, as far as the American consumer is concerned, most Burgundian crémants available here come from just two companies: the Boisset group (which makes sparkling wines under the Charles de Fère, Louis Bouillot and Grandin labels) and the cooperative of Bailly, which is based in Saint-Bris. A few top producers (Simmonet-Febvre in Chablis is one) also make some good sparklers.

But not all the sparkling wine from Burgundy is crémant. There are also vin mousseux bottlings, which can be either bottle fermented or tank method wines. They are blends of grapes from different regions of France. Generally, they are less interesting, but more inexpensive, wines.
Elsewhere in France, the classic sparkling wine area is around Limoux in Languedoc. It's a relatively cool area, growing Chardonnay and Mauzac. The locals claim that they invented the method of bottle fermentation before the Champenois. Today, production is dominated by the cooperative of Sieur d'Arques.

There are other, smaller pockets: Jura and Savoy are the best known, making very crisp, green wines—an acquired taste, but (and this is the great thing about all these wines) properly made, clean and fresh. That's a change, and one worth popping a cork for.

91 François Chidaine 2004 Montlouis-sur-Loire; $17. This is a great, concentrated wine, which packs clean almond, kiwi and apple flavors along with a creamy, rich mousse and delicious acidity. This is a wine that can age well: A 1996 was still fresh when tasted early in 2006. Cellar Selection. —R.V.
90 Bailly Lapierre 2004 Blanc de Noirs Brut (Crémant de Borgogne); $19. A serious, intensely fruity wine that shows great depth of flavor, some good tannic structure and fine, long-lasting acidity. With its delicate mousse, this is a finely made wine that could well age for two more years in bottle. Editors' Choice. —R.V.
90 Château de Moncontour 2003 Cuvée Prédilection (Vouvray); $NA. A curious connection here: The wine is called "Prédilection" because apparently novelist Balzac's mistress loved Vouvray. Whatever the reason, the wine itself is fine and complex, with aromas of hazelnuts, layers of acidity, a touch of toast, but still retaining great fresh fruit. Not available in the U.S. —R.V.
90 Domaine des Baumard NV Carte Turquoise (Crémant de Loire); $16. A rich, complex blend of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc made by one of the top producers in Anjou. The ripe fruits have kept their freshness, leaving a generous but crisp wine, with a delicate, elegant mousse. —R.V.

Italy
Italy is a distant second to France in terms of how much sparkling wine it exports to the U.S. but its recent growth and popularity have boomed. According to the New York-based Italian Wine & Food Institute, the amount of Italian bubbly imported to the U.S. in 2005 grew 5.4 percent over the previous year's figures, equaling sales of $73 million (compared to France's $468 million and Spain's $46 million).

Italy's sparkling wine potential goes beyond a question of semantics. Its repertoire of bubbly spumante represents true alternatives to Champagne, not only in the way these wines are made, but in how and when they are consumed.

Perhaps the closest to Champagne in terms of winemaking philosophy, Franciacorta makes some of the most elegant and exclusive sparkling wines in the world. Franciacorta is located in Italy's Lombardy region (home to fashion capital Milan) among the gentle hills between Brescia and Lake Iseo, below the chain of mountains at Italy's northern border. This area represents some 80 wine estates, of which about a dozen brands are present in the U.S. market, including Bellavista, Berlucchi, Cà del Bosco, Contadi Castaldi, Montenisa (the Antinori estate) and Monte Rossa.

Like Champagne, Franciacorta's sparkling wine is made in the metodo classico, in which secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle to achieve overall elegance and smaller, more plentiful perlage. It is Italy's first and only sparkling wine region distinguished by DOCG status; the wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco, with a maximum of 15 percent Pinot Noir. Its stringent DOCG rules stipulate that Franciacorta must be aged for a minimum of 25 months, with 18 months on the lees in the bottle. Vintage Franciacorta is aged for 37 months, with 30 months on the lees. The sparkler is produced in varying degrees of sweetness, from brut nature to demi-sec. Some producers make rosés, and others opt for a crémant-style version, which is known as Satèn in Franciacorta. Made only with white grapes, Satèn has a lower level of carbon dioxide pressure resulting in creamier foam and characteristic smoothness.

Franciacorta's producers say that the similarities with Champagne stop at metodo classico.

"We would be foolish and presumptuous to compare ourselves to Champagne," says Adriano Baffelli, director of the Consorzio per la Tutela del Franciacorta, the powerful winegrowers' association. For staters, he says, Champagne produces some 280 million bottles per year, and Franciacorta, a mere 6 million bottles per year. "We are our own wine, with our own unique culture and territory and we don't have a sense of competition with Champagne. Nor do we harbor a sense of inferiority." The reality is quite the opposite. Producers from Franciacorta actually exchange information with colleagues in France and Spain about things like which corks and yeasts work best.

It must also be emphasized that Franciacorta is very unified. This is one of the only Italian wine regions in which producers are lobbying to make winemaking regulations more stringent, not more flexible. For example, there are proposals to further limit yields in the vineyards and to keep wines on the lees for longer periods of time (up to 60 months for riservas). The area also benefits from it proximity to high-tech capitals like Milan and Brescia. For example, producers can log onto the Consorzio Web site and view satellite images of their vineyard to help them determine growth patterns, and chart the progress of their ripening.

These efforts lead to a high-quality product that commands prices of $30 and more per bottle. Prosecco, on the other hand, is gaining ground as a competitor to beer, due to its wide appeal and the informal circumstances under which it is usually consumed.

Although Prosecco is an exceptionally genuine and straightforward wine, a haze of confusion sometimes surrounds it. This is because Prosecco is many things: It is a grape variety confined to a specific region, and the name of sparkling wine with its own winemaking methodology. Prosecco is easy to drink, refreshing and the kind of wine you'll want to keep in reserve supply for when friends pop over for a visit.

Prosecco is truly a unique product, made in a unique parcel of Italian territory. The grape ripens very late and is harvested in late October, thus extending the growing season in one of Italy's coolest winemaking areas. Its production area is in the province of Treviso, at the border of the alpine province of Belluno that spans the snow-capped Dolomite mountains. Like many sparkling wines, Prosecco was born from a mistake. During the region's cool winters fermentation would stop, leaving residual sugar and some carbon dioxide in the wines when fermentation began again in the spring. To make this style of wine intentionally (and on a larger scale), producers in the area later adopted the charmat process, in which a second fermentation occurs in large pressurized tanks, instead of inside individual bottles. The end result is a fresher, fruiter wine with crisp acidity and citrus, peach and almond flavors.

It is the Cartizze cru—a small swath of vertical vineyards within the Valdobbiadene area that is generally considered to make the best Prosecco of all. Cartizze Prosecco is indeed more elegant and subtle, with aromas of white flowers and talc powder. Though Prosecco has traditionally been an off-dry or sweet wine, there are many brut Proseccos on the market today. This festive bubbly is versatile and food-friendly. It works wonders as an aperitif. And with slightly less alcohol (11 to 11.5 percent) than other wines, it's the kind of bubbly you can drink at lunch, too.

In addition to Franciacorta and Prosecco, Italy boasts a small band of quality sparkling wine producers in the northernmost Trentino region. Thanks to a handful of producers such as Ferrari (makers of one of Italy's most emblematic sparkling wines, the Riserva del Fondatore) and Rotari, Trentino is a third, important sparkling wine community in Italy.

93 Ca' del Bosco 1999 Cuvée Annamaria Clementi (Franciacorta); $157. A standout sparkler. Delivers an intense bouquet ripe with peach, pineapple, toasted almond and custard. A brilliantly crystalline appearance underscores the lively acidity and crisp freshness that comes through on the palate. Its full, textured feel is impressive. —M.L.
93 Ferrari 1996 Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore (Trento); $90. One hundred percent Chardonnay and widely considered by many Italians the country's top sparkler. Bouquet is very complex, with layers of honey, dried lavender, tealeaf, pear, bread crust and unexpected mint-like notes. Intense, smooth and long on the finish. —M.L.
92 Bellavista NV Cuvée Brut (Franciacorta); $34. A faceted sparkler whose whole is incredibly seductive and inviting. The aromas span the exotic fruit spectrum—from banana to kiwi—but leave room for smooth butter and yeast. Very creamy and silky in the mouth, with lively perlage. —M.L.
91 Bartolomiol 2005 Cartizze (Prosecco Superiore di Cartizze); $33. Seductively feminine and floral, laced with jasmine and field flowers, with notes of banana nut bread, almond and refined mineral tones. Creamy, fluffy and filling in the mouth with fruit flavors and a crisp close. —M.L.

Spain
A well-respected cava producer proclaims on its Web site that there is no such thing as a good or bad cava, just different cavas for different moments. On one hand, we second this assertion: Cava is a versatile sparkling wine that by its very nature and composition avoids the depths inhabited by truly bad wines. On the other hand, cava, which most often is made from a trio of indigenous Spanish white grapes, is such a neutral style of bubbly that it struggles to attain the heights of, say, fine Champagne.

And therein rests the dilemma that has been facing cava since its inception in the late 1800s, when Codorníu's Josep Raventós succeeded in bottling Spain's first sparkling wine made in the méthode champenoise. Should cava be looked at as a simple, affordable sparkling wine most qualified to be an apéritif or party beverage? Or is it a legitimate competitor to Champagne, the undisputed world champion when it comes to bubbly?

I've found that the majority of cavas fit into the former category, even the better ones. In general, they are light-bodied, racy, citrusy and flush with pulsing acidity that allows them to go very well with olives, nuts, shrimp and other finger foods. Because the wines' composition is usually a mix of the reticent Macabeo (Viura), Parellada and Xarello grapes, and only occasionally Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Trepat, Garnacha or Monastrell (Mourvèdre), the wines are more austere than rich. As a result, they weigh in too lean to do battle with the bulkier, yeastier, creamier Champagnes that are based largely on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

However, take the word of the hundreds of small and large cava producers in Spain's Penedès region, where 95 percent of all Spanish cava is made, and you might well believe that cava is capable of rivaling Champagne for prominence and market share. Throughout the Penedès, as well as Rioja, Navarra, Valencia and other regions where cava is made, producers take pride in the fact their wines are elaborated with the utmost of care, using purely traditional methods. By law, cavas must see a minimum of nine months contact with the lees prior to disgorgement and dosage, and by practice they often see more. From a winemaking perspective, then, cava is on a par with Champagne: the wines are fermented in stainless steel; bottled with sugar and yeast so as to create a second fermentation that results in bubbles; then aged, riddled, disgorged and dosed.

What's definitely not on a par is the price of cava versus that of Champagne. Basic cava rarely exceeds $15 a bottle while the very best ones, those that have seen extra long lees contact and are made from top-notch fruit, peak at about $40.

Stylistically speaking, cava comes in all the well-known levels of sweetness, starting with the no-added-sugar brut nature all the way through semisweet and sweet renditions. We prefer the classic brut, with its six to 15 grams of sugar per liter, although on occasion a brut nature can be appealing in a razor-sharp kind of way.

To help you find the right cava at the right price we've highlighted a few of our favorites currently available in the United States. As they say in Spain; salud!

91 Llopart 2002 Rosé Reserva Brut (Cava); $25. An alluring pink bubbly made from Monastrell and Garnacha. The bouquet is dry, clean and spicy, with crushed raspberry aromas. Full in the mouth, while the peach and nectarine flavors are delicious. Finishes a bit racy and citrusy, with lasting notes of pink grapefruit and passion fruit. —M.S.
90 Marqués de Monistrol 1999 Reserva Privada Brut (Cava); $15. A stylish wine that's on the way up, as evidenced by the two-point bump it's receiving from a previous review, in December 2004. Today it's round and full, with aromas of hay and popcorn. Layered throughout the middle, with expressive white fruit, dryness and also some sweetness. —M.S.
89 Segura Viudas NV Reserva Heredad Brut (Cava); $20. Regal in presentation, with its broad-based bottle and hand-applied metal label. In every edition this is one of Spain's more elegant, serious cavas. Look for slightly toasted, charcoal-based aromas backed by ripe apple and citrus flavors. Fine feel and length, and very dry. —M.S.
89 Juvé y Camps 2000 Gran Brut (Cava); $36. Fairly big and yeasty, with dusty earth and mushroom notes that offer complexity to the dominating apple and pear aromas. Plenty of fruit with hints of nutmeg and white pepper. Richly textured; roundness is its calling card. —M.S.

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